Sunday, 23 July 2017

Harwich & Parkeston 2 v 3 FC Clacton

Saturday 22nd July 2017
Pre-season Friendly
Royal Oak, Dovercourt
Admission: Free
Programme: None
Attendance: 80 (rough head count)
Match Rating: 3

I have been wanting to visit the Royal Oak for years, to see for myself a grand old traditional non-league ground which has seen better days (which was part of the attraction) but I had been reluctant to make the long journey to the north east Essex coast for a Step 7 fixture, the level that Harwich play at these days. A friendly against one of their traditional local rivals from when they were in the Eastern Counties League sufficiently attracted me today.

The Royal Oak is about a ten minute walk from Dovercourt train station, and from the moment I saw the old fashioned floodlights pylons came into view as I approached on foot, I sensed that the ground would live up to my hopes. Spectators can enter the ground via a couple of open gates, with plenty of varied club signage scattered around the front of the clubhouse next to the main road. Once inside, one feels a mixture of joy at witnessing a throwback to how non league grounds used to be, hope that it will survive the modern era in its current – or indeed any – form, and sadness that the club has fallen on hard times in recent years. A tall and imposing old fashioned stand straddles the half way line, with ivy decorating the side, black and white stripes with the club's initials painted into the bottom front of the fascia all adding to its considerable charm. Only the front couple of rows have seats and are available for use, as the rear section is out of bounds, but the seating available offers a good elevated view of the action. Between the stand and the main road, and beyond a small plastic bus shelter type covered area, is a comfortable and homely clubhouse. To the other side of the stand is a smart white toilet block, whilst in the far corner is a large refreshments kiosk and with a board showing the teams, although this was not updated today. Behind the goal closest to the main road there is a covered stand with three very steep steps, whilst behind the other goal, set some way back, is an attractive brick building housing the changing rooms. The remaining length is the only section that is somewhat untidy (which is in no way a criticism), with an overgrown bank along about half of the length. Finished off by its location hemmed in between housing, this is a ground to really savour, with not a modern “keep the groundgraders happy” metallic stand or similar unnecessary addition to be seen. Much work by dedicated volunteers seems to have gone into keeping the place clean and tidy recently, and there was a really friendly feel to the place too.

Harwich and Parkeston currently ply their trade in the Premier Division of the Essex and Suffolk Border League and they did apply for promotion back to the Eastern Counties League last season, but only finished in fifth place and local neighbours Little Oakley made the step up instead as champions. Nonetheless, it is great to see Harwich heading back in the right direction after years when their very existence has looked in grave danger. FC Clacton had a poor season in the Eastern Counties League Premier Division and were due to be relegated having finished second bottom, but were reprieved thanks to an expansion of the division.

On a mainly overcast afternoon, it was a case of third time lucky for me with friendly games so far this season, following one goal in the two games seen so far. This was a competitive, feisty match, particularly during the first half when there were a few square-ups, and the Clacton number 10 seemed to be sent to the sin bin to calm down. Harwich opened the scoring on 22 minutes when a cross on the gallop from the right was headed home at the far post. Clacton almost equalised within a couple of minutes when a flicked pass sent the forward through on goal but the keeper got a hand to the near post shot and diverted the ball just wide of the post. But on 31 minutes, Harwich doubled their lead when their striker received a ball forward and showed good footwork to create some space before firing low past the keeper. They really should have made it three on 37 minutes when, following another cross from the right, the striker at the far post couldn’t keep his shot down with the goal at his mercy a few yards out.

So a comfortable and deserved half time lead for Harwich, but as both teams made a host of changes at the break, so the balance of play tilted heavily towards the visitors. On 55 minutes, Clacton pulled a goal back with a slightly fortunate goal. A loopy cross from the right evaded everyone and bounced back off the far post, allowing a simple tap in. Seven minutes later and a ball over the top set a striker clear of the defence but his cross shot came back off the far post. But on 69 minutes, Clacton were level. Another dinked ball over the defence set the striker through and he gently lobbed the ball over the onrushing keeper and into the net. On 86 minutes, the comeback was complete as Clacton took the lead. The Harwich keeper and defender got in a tangle when dealing with an onrushing striker, who the chipped the ball into the empty net. A minute from time and a Clacton striker span away from the last man, who then cynically tripped the striker and was shown a straight red card.  But the free kick came to nothing and Clacton saw out the remaining minutes quite comfortably.

So this was very much a game of two halves, and Harwich will take great heart from putting in an excellent performance against senior opposition particularly in the first half. Clacton had a first half to forget, and while the second half was evidently an improvement, it was still far from a convincing performance with the league season just a week away.

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